Is prorogation diminishing Canada’s democracy?
In the past year many more Canadians have become familiar with the term prorogation. Parliament was due to resume on January 25, but for the second time in just over a year the government decided to prorogue, killing all bills currently before Parliament, and more importantly shutting down the venue for democratic debate for two months.
The announcement came on December 30, 2009 while many Canadians were preoccupied with holiday celebrations and family commitments. Parliament will reopen with a new session and Speech from the Throne in early March 2009.
Prorogation is a common constitutional option for governments who wish for a new parliamentary session. Often governments will call for a prorogation upon achieving most of their agenda, or after a change in leadership.
This is not the case for the most recent prorogation. Of the 64 bills introduced since the beginning of the past Parliamentary session in January 2009, only 27 have been passed. Many of the uncompleted bills were top priorities of the current government, including tougher crime legislation.
Bills, however, can always be reintroduced and unanimous consent from the House of Commons could restore all the bills to the status they held in the House before prorogation. The real concern generated by this prorogation is the shutting down of democratic debate, both around ongoing and unresolved Parliamentary business as well as new issues as they arise.
Open debate is essential within Canada’s system of governance and democracy. Under a multiparty system, Canadians have the right to vote for parties and individuals that represent their interests and views. As a result, Parliament is composed of a number of different parties with representatives from across the country. These representatives bring with them a variety of perspectives on the issues that matter to Canadians.
As new policy options are introduced in Parliament, representatives can debate, call for amendments and help shape these policies. Without this venue of democratic debate, as is the case in prorogation, the government can proceed without hearing alternative perspectives.
For example, in the first week of 2010 the government decided to install new and controversial scanners in several major Canadian airports. The move is at the centre of a debate between security, personal privacy and human rights violations through profiling. The opposition will eventually have a chance to debate this issue, but not before the scanners are in place.
How many other issues will pass without democratic debate during this prorogation?
At the root of these concerns is another fundamental principle of Canadian democracy – government accountability. Political accountability requires that governments have to answer for their actions and the outcomes of their policies. In Canada’s parliamentary system opposition parties play a critical role in this regard through open debate. However, if no one is there to challenge the government or offer an alternative perspective, where is the accountability to the Canadian people?
Public justice also calls for governments to be accountable, ensuring policies work to promote well-being and just societies. Through this prorogation the government is diminishing the opportunity for active citizen participation in decision making and accountability.
Spokespeople for the government claim the prorogation will give the government more opportunities to refocus on the economic recovery with a fresh start in 2010. As Canadians begin the slow recovery from the recession, questions such as how long the stimulus funding should be maintained and how the deficit should be cut back are at the forefront. However, discussion and planning on such important issues should be open to all Canadian perspectives.
In addition, managing the economy can be done just as easily while Parliament is in session. In fact, during recent months some of the reports released and legislation in progress was about economics and poverty. For example, on December 8 the Senate Committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology’s Subcommittee on Cities released a report, In From the Margins: A Call to Action on Poverty, Housing and Homelessness. This report called for extensive government action for poverty reduction and eventually elimination.
Two weeks earlier the House of Commons passed a motion that the government develop an immediate plan for poverty elimination. The Standing Committee on Human Resources and Social Development and the Status of People with Disabilities (HUMA) was approaching completion of a major study on the federal role in reducing poverty. HUMA was also working on Bill C-304 which was introduced last fall calling for the government to develop a national housing strategy, especially concerning affordable housing.
Regardless of the motivations behind proroguing Parliament, it looks like open debate, alternative perspectives and complete government accountability will be on hold for the next two months.
Rebekah Sears is former CPJ’s policy intern.
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